Two baffling months have passed since Mr Sharif began his push for peace talks with the Taliban. Nothing — no number of terror attacks, no list of unreasonable demands from the other side — seems to be big enough or bad enough to derail the government’s singular commitment to these talks. It is safe to say now that Mr Sharif is not just engaging in the spectre of talks just to win over public support for a military operation. If that were indeed his motivation, talks would have remained suspended after the Taliban brutally killed 23 FC personnel.
But despite the government’s dogged insistence on peace through talks, we are no clearer on the terms of engagement with the Taliban: the major issues on the negotiating table, the common ground for negotiation, and so on. The million-dollar question is: do even Mr Sharif and his government have clarity on these issues? Since Mr Sharif is, to put it mildly, relatively uncommunicative in terms of substantive policy decisions with the populace that elected him, we are left guessing about his thinking and reasoning. There are four explanations, in my mind, of the reasons Mr Sharif is going down this path, with no end in sight and no counter-narrative to offer.
The first is simple: fear. The Taliban are powerful and bloodthirsty, and Mr Sharif fears, not unreasonably, for his and his family’s lives. Fear breeds appeasement. The second is politics. Mr Sharif is competing with Mr Khan, an early proponent of talks, for his center-right base. But this alone doesn’t explain the continuation of talks after even Mr Khan started coming around to the idea of an operation. The political explanation also hinges on Mr Sharif’s sense of exercising power over the army, of being the one calling the shots, of holding the army in its barracks until he says go.
The third explanation is sympathy with the Taliban. Let’s not forget that Mr Sharif was Ziaul Haq’s protege, although he seems to have come a long way since then. He remains very close to the Saudis. When he speaks, he seems like a reasonable man. But the lack of an outright counter-narrative emerging from him may conceal a darker sympathy with the Taliban cause. And then, we are really in trouble.
The fourth explanation is that Mr Sharif is waffling because he has no clue what to do, either because he is overwhelmed with the enormity of the problem, or the complexity of the solutions. So he is stringing everyone — including himself — along.
There may be some truth in each of these. On some level, the specific explanation really does not matter, because the end result of the talks continuing on the current path is more power to the Taliban, less to Mr Sharif, and less to all progressive elements in Pakistan. You may argue that the balance of power has shifted towards Mr Sharif in the latest iteration of the talks: at least the Taliban agreed to a ‘ceasefire’ (if that is what we are calling diverting blame for attacks to unknown splinter groups). Talks are now also being conducted directly by a reconstituted government negotiating committee with the Taliban.
Doesn’t matter. What is most crucial, a set of basic principles including the sanctity of Pakistan’s democracy, the safeguarding of women’s and minorities’ rights and freedoms, and a freedom of speech for all have not been set as preconditions. We are still reeling from the irreversibility of Zia era laws. We cannot afford any further slide, even a small one, down that path.
In addition, the government needs to stress a refusal to let our educational, health, and media institutions regress — and more, a refusal to regress our way of life. We are hardly at an ideal position in any of these regards; but we cannot let these institutions and norms slide backwards.
Talks may not be violent, but they alone will not accomplish peace, especially talks without strong preconditions from the government. On the other hand, a military operation is also not necessarily the centre of a successful counterterrorism policy. In fact, undertaken in isolation, it almost certainly will not work. It will not be able to deal with Karachi or south Punjab, nor is it a long-term strategy. The roots of terrorism are sown too deeply for that. In the long-term, the government needs to deter militancy by apprehending terrorists, through de-radicalisation programmes for would-be terrorists, and an overhaul of the educational curriculum to counter radicalisation and engender tolerance.
The most effective policy tool that the government can employ right now is to offer a powerful counter-narrative to the Taliban. The war with the militants is a battle for hearts and minds as much as a battle for power, and Mr Sharif needs to swallow his fears, put aside politics, get some clarity, and talk to the Pakistani people about how a modern, prosperous and progressive Pakistan is in every single Pakistani’s best interest.